An Initiative A Day 8.2: Partner with individual landowners, the food processing industry, and local organizations to protect agriculturally valuable land for future generations.

March 18, 2014 in Vibrant NEO 2040, Vision

On February 25, the NEOSCC Board voted unanimously to approve and endorse the Vibrant NEO 2040 Vision, Framework and Action Products.  We are sharing an “Initiative A Day” so you can gain a better understanding of the vision and framework!  If you would like to read all of the Initiatives, you can download them here: Recommendation and Initiatives.  You can access a pdf of the entire vision chapter here.  The vision chapter contains all 41 initiatives, development strategies, indicators, and matrices that identify how the recommendations, initiatives and indicators all relate.

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Initiative 8.2: Partner with individual landowners, the food processing industry, and local organizations to protect agriculturally valuable land for future generations.

WHAT THIS MEANS. Agricultural land is a precious resource that is diminished by exurban growth and development. The farm crisis of the 1980s inaugurated a several-decade decline in the economic prospects of smaller family-owned farms, with many families choosing to exit the business entirely and sell their properties. This trend intersected with structural shifts in the American workforce to produce a period of rapid sprawl. Though the pace of suburban building has slowed in the aftermath of the 2008 recession and the price of agricultural land is at an all-time high (as of 2013), the structural conditions of declining family farms remain the same, and promises only to worsen in coming years.

Many regions and local governments have recognized this dynamic and partnered with a constellation of actors to facilitate the transition in farm ownership from kinship-based models to new generations of producers and processors. Several of Ohio’s peer states, notably Minnesota, are leading national practice in this regard. Minnesota’s program engages the considerable knowledge and resources of the University of Minnesota, offering a host of resources from networking events and initiatives between experienced and emerging young farmers to estate planning and legal consulting services

In addition to providing support for farm transition planning, mechanisms are needed to hold agricultural land in easement. Agricultural land trusts and conservancies have taken shape in several states to meet this need. The first agricultural land trust, in Marin County, California, was established in 1980 in response to a rapid urbanization scheme proposed for the coastal area of this Bay Area county. It has succeeded in preserving nearly 50,000 acres of farmland, contributing greatly to the scope and scale of the region’s food shed. The model has also been successfully applied to ranchers and commodity producers—Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, founded in 1995, and has preserved over 417,928 acres throughout the State of Colorado, for instance. Less common, and a potential area for Northeast Ohio to innovate in this sector, is employing agricultural easements to convert former commodity farm operations into produce (fruit and vegetable) cultivation.

WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT. While the dominant model of agricultural land succession is in decline, the demand and need for food, particularly locally-cultivated food, is ever-rising. There is no shortage of willing entrants to the market, but both they and prospective sellers are hampered by the absence of mechanisms facilitating and supporting transactions. This is a problem of market organization, and if regions are to secure valuable agricultural lands and their productive capacity for the future, something must be done about it.

GETTING IT DONE. Northeast Ohio’s land conservancies are already working to preserving agricultural land, but ensuring continued and successful agricultural use is not in their core skill set, nor should it necessarily be. The region should consider formation of an agricultural land trust, either as an independent entity or as a subsidiary of an existing land trust, whose dedicated mission is to preserve agricultural land for the next generation(s). In addition to using the standard tool of easements to preserve land, this entity could play a valuable role in inter-generational networking between farmers, especially with the surge of interest in local foods. Leadership of this initiative is an issue. While the State of Ohio does have a farm preservation program currently active, it is modestly funded and grants much latitude to counties on screening candidate farmsteads. A more robust private, nonprofit, or university-based entity is probably best positioned to lead exploratory efforts, with soil and water conservation districts playing an advisory role. Local philanthropic foundations should be engaged in this, as it bears directly on a whole way of life and a vital aspect of the region’s character and economy, as well as the State of Ohio.

TOOL: Agricultural Easement Purchase Program: A permanent deed restriction, placed on a parcel or several parcels of active agricultural land. The deed restricts that use of the land for agriculture only, in perpetuity.

TOOL: Agricultural Security Areas: An Agricultural Security Area is a 10-year agreement between farmer, County Commissioners, and Township Trustees to not initiate any non-farm development for a period of 10 years. ASA’s must be at least 500 contiguous acres and therefore may require neighbors applying together. The benefits of placing a farm in an ASA are a guaranteed 10-year no-build period, plus some may be eligible for tax abatement on new construction of farm buildings. In most counties, either the Planning Department or the Soil and Water Conservation District are responsible for the application process.

Lead Land Conservancies; Nonprofit Organizations; Ohio State University Extension, Universities; Soil and Water Conservation Districts
Target Community Cost risk areas
Implementation Complexity Moderate

These recommendations, initiatives, and products, are not one-size-fits all and some aspects of the initiatives won’t be applicable everywhere in the 12-county region. The Vibrant NEO 2040 Vision, Framework and Products are intended inspire and guide decision-making at the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), Council of Government, and local levels to ensure that land use, transportation, and environmental considerations are simultaneously addressed by their processes. Ultimately, the implementation of Vibrant NEO 2040 is up to Northeast Ohio’s communities and residents. But regardless of the applicability of each initiative to any particular part of the region, the goal for each community within the Vision is the same: stability, prosperity, and a high quality of life for all of its residents.

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